Smog pollution is a serious health issue in Pennsylvania. More than 8 million Pennsylvanians live in areas with unsafe air due to dangerous levels of smog pollution. That means nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians are at risk of inhaling a pollutant that is often compared to getting a sunburn on your lungs. Smog puts people at increased risk of developing asthma and heart disease, and triggers asthma attacks and heart attacks that can be fatal.
When smog levels rise, air-quality alert days mean that children, seniors and other vulnerable groups must stay inside or face serious risks to their health.
Last week the American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air Report, which found that York County residents continue to suffer from bad air quality. The county scored an "F" grade for smog (or ozone) pollution, and the York/Harrisburg/Lebanon metro area ranked 64th worst in the country out of 277 metro areas surveyed for smog pollution. This is particularly bad news for the more than 44,000 county residents who have asthma (including over 10,000 children), the 22,000 people with COPD (a chronic lung disease) and the 30,000 people with heart disease.
Unfortunately for these vulnerable people, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under Gov. Tom Corbett is not helping. In April, the DEP unveiled a plan supposedly aimed at controlling smog pollution that does nothing to limit smog-causing nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution from coal-fired power plants, in spite of the fact that coal plants are the largest source of NOx pollution in the state. While the eight largest plants are capable of cutting their average NOx emissions by about 40 percent using already installed technology, the limits set in the plan would actually allow these plants to increase their smog-causing pollution without any penalty.
These limits proposed by the DEP are three to four times higher than limits being considered in neighboring Maryland and New York for their coal power plants. That means Pennsylvania families could continue to suffer, even as other states take steps to clean up their air.
York County is home to the Brunner Island power plant, which is the sixth-largest coal power plant in the state. It is also the only remaining large coal power plant that has not installed a common control for smog-causing pollution known as Selective Catalytic Reduction, or SCR. This technology is like a much bigger version of the catalytic converter on your car and can reduce smog-forming pollution by 80 percent to 90 percent. Without SCR, Brunner Island is contributing unnecessarily to the air quality woes not only of York County, but of Lancaster and Philadelphia, which have their own serious smog problems.
To add to the problem, the DEP proposal would allow the operator of Brunner Island, PP&L, to average emissions over its fleet of coal plants to comply with the already weak standard. That means that even if the overall pollution limits were lowered, PP&L could comply by slashing emissions from its Montour plant, nearly two hours north of York, while smog-causing emissions continue from Brunner Island virtually unchecked. That is simply unfair to people who have to breathe in York County, Lancaster County and other areas directly downwind.
It is time for Gov. Corbett's DEP to live up to its name and protect the health of all Pennsylvanians. The DEP can start by improving their draft smog plan to include meaningful limits on smog-causing pollution from coal-fired power plants consistent with the use of modern, pollution-cutting SCR technology on every plant. Our families deserve healthy air, so it's time for Gov. Corbett to cut pollution from coal plants and ensure we can all breathe easier.
You can learn more about Gov. Corbett's proposed smog plan, find out about attending upcoming public hearings and submit a comment through June 30 at sc.org/cutsmog.
— Joanne Kilgour is the director of the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter.